"It seems like L.A. is going through these changes," says artist Evan Skrederstu. "Some of it is kind of sad because you miss having downtown to yourself and a handful of other people, but that's what keeps us interested."
The "us" that Skrederstu mentions is UGLARworks, an art collective with work that is intrinsically tied to Los Angeles. They explore the city, discuss it, even analyze it to create multi-disciplinary works of art that couldn't come to life anywhere else. Skrederstu has a balanced perspective of the changes that sometimes make Angelenos cringe. "Echo Park, half the neighborhoods that have been gentrified, is it better? Is it worse? Probably neither. It's just different."
UGLARworks' connection to greater Los Angeles runs deep. Skredertsu is a native. He grew up in Van Nuys and currently lives in Whittier. Christopher Brand is originally from Massachusetts, but moved to Los Angeles as a child in 1986. He also lives in Whittier. Skrederstu and Brand have known each other since their teenage years, when they attended L.A. County High School for the Arts together. Steve Martinez is from Compton, but now lives in Pacoima. Espi was born in Van Nuys, spent many of his formative years in Pico Rivera and currently lives in Fontana. Ryan Gattis is from Colorado. He headed to Orange County for college, later moved on to the U.K. for grad school and then headed back to California, settling in Los Angeles. He lives in San Pedro. We met at Gattis' loft for an interview with five artists who have five different experiences of Los Angeles, but always manage to find common ground.
"I would say that dialogue brought us together," says Espi. "We all had the same ideas, but a little bit of different styles. Our dialogue, our passion and direction was the same."
Collectively, they have a perspective of Los Angeles that is unique. It is not the Los Angeles of Hollywood profiles and reality shows. "It's a very true, real aspect, but, Los Angeles is so much more than that," says Brand of the common image of L.A. Instead, there's an L.A. marked by an incredibly unusual river -- "It's one of the last real adventures in the city," says Skrederstu-- birds, power lines and a rich history of murals and handcrafted signs. It's a city filled with a multitude of spoken languages and a diverse plethora of food that they find inspiring. More importantly, though, there are the people, nearly 10 million of them in the county, according to the 2012 census.
"There is enough content here to keep us going for a hundred lifetimes," says Skederstu.
Signs of UGLARworks can be spotted across L.A. There's the mural on Spring Street, right where Chinatown and Lincoln Heights meet, paying tribute to the muralists who came before them. Martinez and Skrederstu painted the back wall of the Viper Room as part of an Air BNB event curated by Moby. Gattis and Martinez worked on Dome Project, a joint effort between the City of Los Angeles and Durban, South Africa. Brand, Martinez and Skrederstu were part of Public Works Project, creating billboards that have moved across the city, from the corner of Rampart and W. 3rd Street to deep in Granada Hills. The billboards were a project with a special significance, harking back to the days of skilled workers who made their livings crafting roadside advertisements. "I'd like to think that we went about it in a similar way that the professionals of the 1920s would have," says Skrederstu. "We completed them in about three days. Three people, three days. It's interesting to put us to the test as a group and put yourself in the shoes of the painters of the past."
They're more than murals and billboards. UGLAR is the collective behind the book "The Ulysses Guide to the Los Angeles River." Martinez provided art for an upcoming fashion collection from German company Ludwig & Schwarz. Skrederstu, Brand and Espi, who also work in tattoo art, will be participating in an exhibition focusing on Japanese tattoo design at the Japanese American National Museum next March. Gattis, who is primarily a writer, put together a narrative art show based on the history of Kung Fu. He's currently working on a book that takes place during the 1992 riots. "Much of that comes from discussions I have either with Evan or folks that Evan has introduced me to," says Gattis. "Honestly, a book like that would never have happened without this collaboration and this support."
Skrederstu has a good memory for L.A.'s days past. He mentions Hollywood back when it was in a state of disrepair. "There used to be parking lots there, they used to call them the Big Wall and the Little Wall and that's where all the taggers and gangsters and junkies hung out," he says. "In the scheme of things, it's probably good that that's gone." He describes himself as the kind of kid who liked to explore storm drains. "There's always the question of, where does this lead? Why is this here?" he asks rhetorically. Today, UGLARworks have become the city's artist-explorers, taking an almost anthropological approach to what they do and sharing their findings with an audience that extends far beyond the county line. They've essentially brought the city on tour as they have traveled internationally with their art. They've become unofficial ambassadors.
"I live and die for L.A.," says Martinez, "so I try to show that as much as I can."
Brand explains that, ultimately, what they are doing is showing people that L.A. isn't that different from many other cities in the world. A few years into their work together, they are still exploring, still finding new things to share. "That's a big reason why it stays as our subject," says Brand. "That's where we are and we're still curious about it."
All images courtesy of UGLARworks.